Dubbed Operation Blizzard, the initiative had law enforcement agencies from over 22 countries participate, and identified over 180 suspects in the illegal wildlife trade.
Global police forces recently seized more than 4,000 live reptiles at airports, breeding facilities, and pet stores across Europe, North America, and elsewhere throughout April and May, in the largest global raid of its kind. National Geographic's investigative reporting project Wildlife Watch reported on Operation Blizzard, an initiative by Interpol and Europol to combat illegal trade in snakes, turtles, and other protected reptiles.
As part of Operation Blizzard, law enforcement agencies in 22 countries including New Zealand, Italy, Spain, South Africa, and the U.S. looked through intelligence reports, cross-referenced earlier cases, monitored social media, and conducted targeted inspections of breeding facilities. Sharing information across agencies allowed Europol to identify over 180 suspects, and make several arrests.
The seizures included more than 20 crocodiles and alligators, 2,700 turtles and tortoises, as well as 1,500 snakes, lizards, and geckos. Six Kenyan sand boa snakes were found in air cargo in the U.S., and two pythons were found in Western Australia. A pet shop and private residence in Israel yielded several boas, turtles, tortoises, and geckos.
Police also confiscated 150 items made from reptile skins as well as other animals and wildlife products including live owls, falcons, swans, elephant ivory and bushmeat. According to a statement from Interpol, six arrests have been made in Spain and six more in Italy. Further arrests and prosecutions are anticipated as investigations continue.
“True animal lovers would never take part in this black market," said Dylan Swain of the Department of Conservation in New Zealand, who assisted in the operation. "As well as damaging wild populations, the conditions in which these reptiles are transported for illegal trade can be appalling. Very few of them survive in the process."
Trafficking of animals is endangering some species with extinction and can also fuel disease outbreaks among humans. The exotic reptile trade has grown over the last twenty years, and millions of animals are imported, both legally and illegally, into the E.U and the U.S as household pets.
Some reptiles are also traded for their skins, which are used in high fashion accessories such as bags and belts. “Generally, our main target is a not a single passenger or individual—our focus is organized crime groups behind the illegal trade,” said Sergio Tirro, a project manager for the environmental crime at Europol.
He added, however, that many of the suspects collected in Operation Blizzard were small-scale participants rather than organized crime leaders. “The illegal trade in reptiles has close associations with organized crime," Daoming Zhang, Interpol’s Assistant Director in charge of Environmental Security, said in a statement. "Operation Blizzard sends a clear message to criminals that the global law enforcement community is homing in on them.”
The operation was conducted between April 12 and May 22 because most reptile trading in the northern hemisphere takes place during the spring and summer months when the cold-blooded animals are more likely to stay warm enough to survive their travels.
Participants in the operation credited the ability to share intelligence across borders for its success. “This operation clearly demonstrates the value of international cooperation,” said Chris Shepherd, executive director of Monitor, a nonprofit organization in Canada dedicated to combating illegal wildlife trade.
“It also illustrates the scale of this massive and well-organized trade.” Swain added, "Operation Blizzard clearly demonstrates that by pooling our enforcement and intelligence resources, the enforcement community firmly contributes to disrupting this destructive trade in reptiles. This operation is a testimony to what can be achieved if we all work together."